Hippocrates - thinky game with handicaps
Designer: Alain Orban
Publisher: Game Brewer, Geronimo Games
Player count: 1-4 players
Set-up time: ~13 minutes
Play length: 50-65 minutes
Win condition: win/loss (but basically: loss)
AI/automa: yes, 3
how the solo game works
Patients from six different regions are queueing to get treated in your hospital. In order of action queue: roll dice and choose patients 3 times in a row, they will pay you for your services, then you will pay the doctors you currently have on your payroll. Then, according to your place on the reputation track, you get to possibly option a doctor you'd like to get, followed by revealing doctors from each region and choosing either a doctor, a medicine kit or a bundle of the two (only if they are in the same column), which will get you the knowledge tile in that column, containing various bonusses. On to treating your patients: you'll group your patients -- who'll need different types of medicine -- with doctors that can provide the medicine they need. Only if you can fully treat a patient, with doctors that match the medicine and enough medicine to treat them, you can get them out of your hospital. Score VP and 1 reputation for each treated patient. Each doctor has 1 to 3 contracts that need fulfilling before you can score VP for the doctor (and retire him). Drop the untreated patients one level down on your playersheet. Reset the main board. Go again.
This is a 4 player game that gets a dummy player for every missing player, so in a 2 player game you'll have 2 dummies. In a sologame you'll have 3 dummies that turn into 3 AI, since you're now giving them reputation and VP, and your victory will depend on besting the highest scoring AI. Spoiler: in the 6 games I played so far I did not manage a victory. I did manage to not be last and score a respectable 62 VP in my best game. I'm incredibly proud.
Back to the game. Each tile (patient and doctor) comes with a number, and on its turn each AI will take an available tile with the highest possible number. This is where you get to plan ahead, since you can predict what optioned doctors will be available for you, and which patients you'll get to choose from.
There is no seperate solo section in the rulebook. I repeat: there is no seperate solo section in the rulebook. This is the first rulebook for solo and multiplay I encountered that explains the solorules througout the normal rules. It'll explain a phase, and end with a paragraph for games with less than 4 players, and a paragraph for solo play. I'm incredibly pleased with setting up and learning a sologame without having to flip wildly through the rulebook.
missing in solo
Both in solo and in multiplayer this is at its core a tile selection and contracts game, but in solo there's more luck involved than there is in multiplayer. In multiplayer you get to see what patients your opponents are selecting, thus giving you insight in what doctors they'll want to get. You could choose to stay away and select patients that need different medicine, or make sure you're ahead on the reputation track, which means you get first pick. In solo all is dependent on the numbers on cards. I've had cases where I was second on the reputation track only to have the two possible doctors I needed snatched away because they both happened to have the highest number. You can see this coming with the optioned doctors, but the regional doctors are a gamble since they only get flipped once you're done optioning. That's something that won't happen in multiplay when you're second on the track, because a. money is tight and no one will buy two doctors in the same round (except for the AI, who will always do so) and b. if you do, they won't be two doctors with the exact same contracts.
This is a great puzzle in terms of patient and doctor selection: patients who need more medicine often give you more VP, but might not pay as much and will be expensive to treat. Selecting a patient that gets you more money or even medicine might also get you negative reputation points that'll cause you to increase the wages on your doctors. Welcoming 3 patients every round will get you more money but will leave you with untreated patients at the end of each round, causing a penalty you really don't want when going up against the AI. Doctors with more contracts will give you more VP but will be more expensive to get and harder to score, and getting more doctors for your patients will have you broke and unable to buy medicine at the end of round 2. So much to think of!
Which brings me to my next point: I really like the two seperate turn-order tracks in this game. In the first round you'll have the region based turn order: choose a patient from the left-most region? You get to go first for the next patient selection. The left-most region happens to also be the region with the highest average VP to be scored per patient, but that also means that these patients will be harder to treat and will land you less money or -- in high demand -- the medicine you would receive as bonus from the 3 regions with the lowest average VP per patient. Patient selection bonusses are also the most common way to move on the reputation track, which is the second turn-order mechanic in this game. Because it's a separate system from the region based turn order you'll deal with in the first round, it gives the game a nice balance: being first to select your patients does not mean you get to choose doctors first as well.
The setting is also a plus for me, there's some nice flavour in the rulebook, and it gave me a chance to brush up on my reading skills in ancient Greek. (I can't remember anything but the symbols.)
And I'll say it again: there is no seperate solo section in this rulebook! You don't have to plough through multiplayer rules in order to understand solo set-up, and then flip back and forth frantically while you try to combine it all in your head. You can set up the game as you read through the rules, and in every round the 3 AI act in the same way: select the highest numbered tile, score VP and reputation.
This game takes time, especially when starting out. I'm not talking game duration, but less than ideal punchboards that took me ages to get the tokens out in one piece, lack of a round overview for quick reference (there's 5 rounds with 1 to 7 phases per round), and fuzzy rules. I spent about fifteen minutes searching for the starting point on the reputation track (it's in the middle), and was spending quite some time on the BGG fora. (I'll get you some other answers beforehand: yes, you can use a doctor that can administer two different medicine to treat a patient that only needs one of those medicine. No, you cannot pass on welcoming patients if you don't have the option to choose an empty spot. No, you can't reuse a contract on a doctor that hasn't had all of its contracts filled.) In short: these aren't an issue once you get a feel for the game, but you need to put in the time. Or at least I needed to, because of course I made you a round overview.
The board. Don't get me wrong, it looks beautiful, but it is also 84 x 56 cm (about 33 x 22 inches), portrait-oriented. I've taken to putting as much as possible (patient stacks, medicine, drachmes) on the board's empty midrif, which helps, but you still need to consider your own player area -- you've got your hospital, and linking doctors to patients takes space as well -- so you'll need about a square meter in table space at least.
The luck. I'm no fan of big amounts of luck in a game, and I'm a bit bummed with the luck element being bigger in solo than in multi-player. There's one way to mitigate this, which is: focus your energy on the reputation track, but in a game this tight there's always a trade-off and it might cost you VP to the point where you'll be the only one left without a 50-VP marker.
Money is often too tight. It forces you to choose, but choosing all the time can get frustrating, especially with the AI scoring 2-3 patients and 2 doctors each round. The times you'll actually be able to afford a doctor plus medicine kit in order to get a knowledge tile will usually be once every game and you won't be able to choose which knowledge tile you want, so that means 23 very appealing knowledge tiles have passed you by. On rare occasions you manage a knowledge tile twice in one game, but it usually means you've skipped on hiring a much needed doctor at one point and you'll come in last after all of the AI. Also: I've yet to have a turn where I can actually afford an 18 drachmes medicine kit, let alone a doctor to go with it.
Last up: there's quite some upkeep in this game, and while you'll get used to all of the flipping and resetting, it does not combine well with the precariously poised VP track. The spaces are smaller than your VP tokens and the track is placed in a way that has me bumping tokens off the board and sweeping them over the board while leaning in to get a better look. Not ideal, especially with having to manage 4 VP tokens. Tip: set up your player board to the left of the main board.
The rulebook advises to score patients for the 3 AI when you've had 3 rounds of welcoming patients. I don't. You would have to keep track of which patient goes to which AI (even more table space needed!), and will sometimes have you score VP for them on two seperate instances: when they take the patient and get a bonus, and when you're done collecting all patients. So here's my tip: look at the numbers and place all of the AI that get their turn before or after you in one go. This means you'll be nice and quick on the upkeep, especially when you go first or last: place all the pons, score them, then select one yourself or the other way round. Or something in between when you're second or third.
There's no mention of this in the rulebook, but the 3 AI will almost always score above the 50 VP mark, so take out those option markers in all colours and use them to keep track of which AI passed the 50 VP by putting it on a 50 VP tile.
I've calculated an average VP of 62.04 per AI, assuming they get 11 patients per game. That's the score to beat at least, but in my last, very satisfying game in terms of scoring doctors and patients, I've landed myself 62 VP, which was nowhere near the first AI with 75 points. I absolutely don't mind a beat your own score, which this essentially is with a near unbeatable AI, but that means all the VP calculating is very unneccesary. You might want to leave out the VP-hassle in your first couple of games, at least until you near the 60 VP mark -- I've not played a game where the first AI scored less than 61.
I like the math that comes with funds and medicine that are constantly running out, and puzzling with patients and accompanying doctors. This can be a highly satisfying game, but the luck involved can be frustrating, especially when combined with the VP the AI are raking in througout the game. You won't succeed beating the AI on strategic choices alone, you need luck on your side, something I don't have too often in games. I get the feeling that this game shines at 4 players, but even with bad luck in the solo game you'll be constantly weighing your options, as your patient selection impacts your resources: Do you want to get ahead on the reputation track? Do you need medicine and assistants? Or money to hire more doctors?
Hippocrates is different from the current games in my collection, and I love to get this out on the (fairly large) table, although I don't expect to beat the AI any time soon, making this essentially a beat-your-own-score. Nevertheless, a game of Hippocrates means you're getting a crunchy game full of flavour.